The road to the Round of 16 at the FIFA World Cup was flooded. After days of torrential rain, water flowed through the streets in the town of Recife on the morning of the U.S. Men's National Team's game against Germany, with the knee-deep waters sometimes bringing traffic to a near-standstill. Busses - including some of those meant to transport the team's friends and family to the Arena Pernambuco - were forced to delay their routes or were canceled altogether.
The rain also made things different on the field, with both teams being forced to do warm-ups in the grass behind the goals to preserve the condition of the field. The United States' pregame routine, which normally involved a full-field workout, possession games, and glimpses of loved ones in the stands, had been turned on its head.
"There were just a lot of factors I think going into the game that made it a difficult one for both teams really because of the conditions and not being able to get a normal warm-up,” said Clint Dempsey. "Also in the back of your mind, a lot of your family not being able to make it to the game because of the traffic and everything and just wanting to make sure that they’re safe."
Yet despite the roiling water and an eventual 1-0 loss to Germany, it turned out the United States had already done enough in the group stages to build a bridge to the second round. The U.S. stay in Brazil is officially extended, and while there were celebrations on the field, the focus afterward immediately turned to what can be improved.
"[The game] was not too easy to handle mentally. I think we gave [Germany] too much respect for the first 20-25 minutes," head coach Jurgen Klinsmann said. "I wish we would have found a way to create a few more chances, but we're happy to go through. "
Now, the U.S. will go from a mentally tricky game, to a matchup against Belgium where the mission could not be more clear. Knockout round games present a fundamentally different challenge for the teams that earned the right to be there. After three games in which a major goal is fighting off the urge to look forward to the next opponent, that urge disappears. All of a sudden, there might not even be a next opponent at all.
"Once the group is done, a whole other tournament actually starts," Klinsmann said. "It's a completely different ball game. Now we'll just talk about one team to beat at a time. This is why I'm really excited about the next step."
Klinsmann isn't the only one that's excited. Some players spent the morning after the win over Germany appearing on morning talk shows, and people from around the country showed their support in various ways. The Empire State Building lit up red, white, and blue in honor of the team's advancement. Meanwhile, fans celebrated in various locations – some even at work.
"I’m getting emails from people who work at companies where the executives have put on the three-hour break and put [the game] on a giant screen," U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati told reporters after the game. "We get four, five, six days of intense interest in the United States."
It's fair to say most of that interest will come in the form of clamoring for a win. And with the group stage behind them, the USA's goal will be for exactly that.